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What Happened Since: 4 Pastors, 4 Countries, and COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, churches around the world are finding ways to shine in the middle of the crisis

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We first interviewed these four pastors from four countries in April 2020 to hear how their churches were coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. 7 months later, we check back with them to see how the situation in their nations has evolved since then.

We are now over 7 months in to the COVID-19 pandemic. What is going on in your church? Have you returned to regular services?

Mark Cabag (Pastor of The City IloIlo, Philippines): We believe life groups are the lifeline of the church. So, during this time, we gather church members in small groups. Even smaller than before. In these groups, we discuss the word, have accountability, and share life together. We hold our meetings primarily outdoors.

We haven’t returned to regular service, because we rent a venue for Sundays, and the guidelines are always changing.

Mark Poh (Pastor of Emmanuel Assembly of God, Singapore): Emmanuel has thankfully returned to regular onsite services. In spite of the restrictions, we have also returned for selected meetings and training workshops and retreats.

What’s ‘going on’ in our church is truly a ‘going-on’. The Church of Jesus is truly going on and growing.  Church life has taken on a whole new depth and level of life and meaning.

The Lord’s prophetic assurance to us at the start of the “Circuit-Breaker” (Singapore’s lock down period) has panned out with such significance and truth.  He said to us that although the numbers and the people may take some time to adjust initially, they will return in greater strength and vivacity. 

“The church longs to meet with one another more than ever before.” -Mark Cabag

Henry Mukisa (Pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Entebbe, Uganda): We are thankful to God that we are still strong in the Lord, and church is continuing. Last week we were able to resume corporate worship, meeting together after almost seven months.

We are now having two services every Sunday, and also encouraging our people to meet in their respective small groups during the week.

David Kropf (Pastor of Chapman Community Chapel, Pennsylvania, USA): Our church has returned to basically a normal schedule.  We are having Sunday School, and meetings on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday nights.

We are not having some of our more fellowship-oriented services. We will soon resume these as well, with certain measures taken following proper COVID precautions.

What have you learned through holding online services? What have been the benefits, and what have been the drawbacks?

David Kropf (USA): We did not hold online services for as long as some other churches did. The benefits were mostly for the congregants, in that they were able to watch whenever they liked, and in very informal attire.  I think many enjoyed that freedom.

The drawback is obvious – a lack of face-to-face fellowship.  While technology is wonderful, there is no real substitute for seeing each other and sitting together.

The Scripture tells us that a day is coming when we will behold Christ face to face (2 Corinthians 3:18), and that is said in a way that suggests it is something desirable.  It would seem then that there is something to actually being able to see each other.

The City IloIlo worship team streaming online, IloIlo, Philippines, 2020

 

Mark Cabag (Philippines): Online service is a great tool to spread the word rapidly to a larger global audience. It also provides easy access for members to watch again and take notes on what the Lord is highlighting in this season.

But nothing compares to face-to-face interaction. John’s second letter really resonates with me, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 12).”

What changes did you make after coming back? Did church look the same, or did any permanent changes come about?

Henry Mukisa (Uganda): We have made changes in our services. We now have a full-fledged English service, and in our second service, we strictly use our local language. We want to minimize time and hold service within the allocated two hours.

Our services are more organized in terms of time management – in our first service back we started and finished on time. Praise God, this is not common in Uganda!

“Our people are so hungry for the truth.” -Henry Mukisa

We also labor to observe the guidelines, like having our people wear masks while in church, wash hands, and use all other available measures to ensure their safety against COVID-19.

Mark Poh (Singapore): Church will not look the same for a long time to come.  But we remember that Jesus told us not to look at the external, but the heart of the matter. Church is not about the external, and is not about religion. It is the heart of worship that draws us back into the presence of God and intimacy with Him.

The changes we made were therefore physical. The external trappings of church include ‘safe-entry’ apps, physical barricades, thermometers, physical distancing, and no ‘live’ singing. These are just inconveniences that make us draw even closer to God, to appreciate the community and to look forward to physical gatherings.

Church is not the service. Church is the Body of Christ.  The greatest and most precious change is that church is looking a lot more like the Church of the Book of Acts – the original blueprint.  COVID-19 precipitated the growth and acceleration of home church – otherwise known as care cells or cell groups.

We have thriving care cells that meet as the Body of Christ, distributed across the regions where our members are represented. We certainly live in exciting times.

Would you say you or your church have taken any faith-filled risks during this period? If so, what were they?

Henry Mukisa (Uganda): Yes, we took to the streets of our city in different corners and started to preach the Gospel. Our church helped to set the pace – initially preaching was not allowed during this period but we later got support from the authorities.

Food distribution by Cornerstone Community Church to those affected by the pandemic, Entebbe, Uganda, 2020

 

Mark Cabag (Philippines): We advocate for adoption and fostering in our church. Even though the guidelines are unpredictable, we continue to negotiate to move a child from an orphanage to be with a loving and permanent family in the midst of the pandemic. We also distributed essentials to those who were infected with the virus, such as when they were quarantined, and provided for some members who faced financial turmoil due to job losses.

David Kropf (USA): We opened for services very early on during the pandemic, and that was somewhat of a risk. I felt that it was essential to open the church doors once again.  There was some concern that we might face some community backlash, but we felt it was the right thing to do. I think God has honored that.

Has your church done any community projects during this time? How did these outreaches go? Why do you think its important for the church to keep serving our communities at this moment?

Mark Cabag (Philippines): Our church has always had a strong voice in homeschooling, with a majority of our families already homeschooling before the pandemic happened. So because the Philippines has closed down all face-to-face schooling, we were able to help other families in our community transition to homeschooling as well.

We believe the church should be even brighter and function as salt, especially at this crucial moment. We were made for this. We are the light and the salt as darkness arises. We become more alive as we refresh others.

Mark Poh (Singapore): The Church premises became a home, a refuge, and a shelter to 11 homeless people, who had no home to call their own.  Our interactions with them have enabled us to bring the presence of Christ into their lives and to bless them unconditionally. The ability to extend our hands and hearts of love to the community is such a blessing, which we treasure.

The CHANGE Shelter at Emmanuel Assembly of God, Singapore, 2020

 

The Body of Christ must continue to be relevant, serving and blessing others outside of her four walls. By doing so, we bring the presence, love, and reality of Christ to where it is needed most.

Henry Mukisa (Uganda): Yes, we engaged in a number of community projects, the biggest being feeding the hungry. Whatever the Lord provided us with, we tried to help our people and those in the community get food, which was lacking during the lockdown.

It’s important for the church to be involved because it reveals the true heart of Christ and also shows the Word of God in action

What would you say to someone who tells you, I can watch church from home – I can watch church on demand. Ill fellowship with other believers on my own schedule – I have no need to go back to regular services.”

David Kropf (USA): That argument would reveal to me a very self-centered believer.  It assumes that church is there to meet your own needs.  I would say they do not seem to realize that church is equally about what they are giving to others and not just about what they are receiving.

“I think another positive has been people realizing how much they need to see one another.” -David Kropf

Church is not just for receiving but should primarily be about what the “body” assembled together brings about. Every member is essential.  Fellowship on our own terms would also just be with the ones that we enjoy. This is dangerous, because we should recognize the needs of everyone in the Body, even those we may not particularly enjoy being around.

Everyone is vital and when you are absent, we are weaker!

Mark Cabag (Philippines): Let’s read the Bible and repent together, and let’s hear and discuss what Jesus says about His blueprint for His church. Let’s begin with the book of Acts, where they met daily for the breaking of bread and for prayer.

We are designed for social interaction, and church is not just a service that we attend but a family that we belong to. You can’t build relationship with family just by sitting in front of a screen week in and week out.

Mark Poh (Singapore): I would love, teach, and disciple this person to realize the wisdom of Hebrews 10:25, the gathering of God’s family.

The picture of the early church in Acts taught us that the early disciples met in homes and the temple as the family of God, meeting and fellowshipping together.

Coming together, doing life and speaking into each other’s life in a consistent manner, is essential for real fellowship. Psalms 92:13 tells us, “Those that are planted in the House of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God.”

Henry Mukisa (Uganda): I will tell that friend that it might be convenient for you to watch online on demand, but if God grants you an opportunity I would encourage you to consider in person services. Fellowship is quite powerful as we come and worship God together. Meeting in person also helps you to activate your gift and serve other believers.

What has been a positive that you have seen as a result of COVID-19, now about eight months through the worldwide pandemic?

Mark Cabag (Philippines): The church longs to meet with one another more than ever before, with a sense of urgency for accountability and prayer. Also, since weaknesses and brokenness are being exposed, running to God instead of from Him has become very crucial for many.

Mark Poh (Singapore): God has allowed COVID to be the catalyst for us to build stronger families (both biological and spiritual) and review the roles of the church, the cell group, the church leaders, and the members, preparing us indeed to live victoriously in the last days.

“Church will not look the same for a long time.” -Mark Poh

Henry Mukisa (Uganda): Our people are so hungry for the truth, and this time of lockdown really brought that out. I trust those who are coming for the service desire a genuine relationship with the Lord and also to grow progressively in the truth.

David Kropf (USA): The vast majority of our congregation has returned to services, and I know for many churches in our area this has not been the case.  It has helped me to see the faithfulness of the congregation, and have an appreciation for them.

I think another positive has been people realizing how much they need to see one another. This has contributed to a thankfulness to be gathering together once again.  Many times in our service, people have publicly prayed and thanked God for the opportunity to meet once again.

We originally spoke to these pastors during the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, in April. You can check out that article here.